Thirty Six Hour Day

An AntiPattern.

Problem: you've let yourself into a DeathMarch. You're faced with a FortyHourWeek - in the cynical acceptation of the term, i.e. more like 60 or 80 or worse.

Context: - for whatever reason, you can't afford quit, everybody is pulling OverTime, and though you're the rare employee with a wife and two kids (everybody else is a young cowboy without a life) you don't think you can get away with NineToFive - no matter that you're doing superlative work when you're in form.

Solution: once in a while, pull a ThirtySixHourDay. You come in at 9 on Tuesday, and get off at 5 (or 6) on Wednesday. Arm yourself with pizza (or have dinner at home if you have a short commute), lots of snacks, plenty of caffeinated drinks. Take a break in the morning (before everybody else comes in) or whenever your vision blurs and you can't see what you type, but don't give in to the temptation to sleep. What's important is that you 'reset' your daily cycle on the following day; you go to sleep on Wednesday - a bit earlier than you're used to. You warn the wife and kids in advance so they'll know to go easy on you that evening.

Resulting context: you've worked for 36 hours straight, which, even if you deduct time for dinner and a few breaks, comes out to a 70-hour week. Your sleep cycle hasn't been messed up too much - which lets you recuperate faster than, say, if you had been in the office till 1AM two days in a row.

Depending on your physical condition, you can pull this off fairly regularly for some time. I can manage one or two in a given month, which still averaged out to 55-hour weeks. Take a vacation afterwards, even a short one. If it really was a case of doing the OverTime to meet commitments and save an important project, management won't have a problem with that. If there's yet another DeathMarch the next month, quit. It's always going to be DeathMarches.

Your main problem is in explaining to management that this works as well, if not better, than what everybody else does - stay at the office late, and come in tired, late and grumpy in the morning.


No, your main problem is that management will come to expect this of you. To impress them you'll next have to pull 2 ThirtySixHourDays in the same week. And then three. And then you BurnOut and lose many months pay. Heck, people have died of BurnOut - it's common in Japan.

The correct answer to the whining "can you pull an all nighter?" is, "only if you can accept the serious loss in productivity this will cause".

The correct answer to the incredulous, "oh, come on, everyone does it!" is, "have you measured the effect on their productivity?".

The correct answer to the haughty, "I've been a manager for N years. I know all about productivity." is "have you measured it? Where are your figures?".

The correct answer to the arrogant, "Look, do it, or I'll remember it on your next performance evaluation." is "I've been measuring it for the last 3 months on this DeathMarch. Here's the graph. Do you want me to show it to your manager?"

The prescription drug Provigil (modafinil) is basically designed for supporting alertness in situations like this, and for most people has essentially no known side effects (ask your doctor about that, of course; I think some people get headaches). It's not a stimulant like the amphetamines classically used by truck drivers and fighter pilots, instead it acts directly on neuro-histamine receptors. It is prescribed specifically for double-shift alertness needs (also for narcolepsy, ADD, and dysthymia).

I've been kind of wondering if this is eventually going to become part of the 80-hour work week culture, sigh.

Note that studies show that Provigil has a limited effectiveness if you're using it to stay awake for longer than about 30 hours at a stretch. You will still feel relatively alert, but your reflexes and cognitive ability start declining at about the same rate they would've normally, just on a time delay.

Ambien (zolpidem tartrate) is a very similar drug for the opposite problem, and can help with sleeping during jet lag.

American information sheet for Provigil: UK information sheet: Most likely effects are headache, nausea, insomnia (duh!), nervousness, anxiety.

Ambien effects can include drowsiness (duh!), dizziness, dry mouth (

Wow! Does this actually work? I'd experiment to find out but I'm reluctant for the obvious reason that I'd rather sleep. --JasonYip

Does for me. I've found it to be the least intolerable way of doing OverTime. As mentioned above, it takes a little discipline - I never work through the night without plenty of snacks, for instance; for some reason my body can tolerate sleeplessness or hunger, but not both. YMMV.

It's supposedly been show that the human body is slightly out of sync with the diurnal rhythm; that, in fact, we have a TwentyFiveHourCycle?. I have verified this insofar as from time to time I will find myself drifting "out of sync" with my usual hours; I will start having trouble going to sleep before 1AM, then 2AM, then 3AM and so on. (There's usually some kind of stress that triggers this 'insomnia', but I have lived through periods of higher stress when it didn't appear and periods of milder stress when it did.) So sometimes I will pull a ThirtySixHourDay just to 'reset the clock' and get back in sync.

-- LaurentBossavit

its funny, but I wouldn't like to work in a place that expected things like that except on rare occassions ... and I would never let anyone write code for me after not sleeping .... NissimHadar

Same here; the point of the pattern is that sometimes (not always for the most rational of reasons) you do have to pull OverTime, and it's good to have a way of attenuating the effects.

Where I work, they are very proud of how people work all night and sleep in their offices. I'm not sure why. Sounds like failure to me. -- SunirShah

Ah, but you're thinking like a rational person, and they're in dreadfully short supply...

Doesn't more recent work suggest that some people have periods > 24hr and some < 24hr? Hence, some people find it easier to stay up later and later, while others find it easier to get up earlier and earlier. I seem ot be a >24 person, so by the end of the week I find it very difficult to get to sleep before 2am, stay in bed all Saturay morning, snooze on Sunday afternoon and have built my own world of pain for getting up at the regulation hour on Monday (sort of JetLag without moving).

This is why I'll no longer work for a company that doesn't have flexi-time.

On the other hand, I believe that good teamwork is best accomplished when everybody is keeping more or less the same hours. You can't schedule a StandUpMeeting unless there's a time you know everybody's going to be there.

aside: Used to work with a guy who'd do a 9 or ten hour day, drive for an hour, go clubbing until four AM and then do it all again the next day. He could keep this up for weeks.

I have read, but don't have a reference, that the body's rythym shortens as people age. When you are 20 you want to stay up all night programming or discussing the meaning of life, but when you reach middle age, having dinner at 4:30 starts to seem like a better idea all the time. When I was 18 I had a summer job as a computer operator and helped baby-sit an annual billing for 40 hours straight on Friday and Saturday, and came into work only one hour late on Monday. I can hardly believe it looking back. -- RobertField

At the ripe old age of 35, I notice I can't do all-nighters like I could when I was in my twenties. I sometimes can if it is something exciting and interesting, or if there are other people around to keep me focused. Otherwise my brain shuts down after twenty-two hours or so, no matter how much coffee, sugar, and pizza I put into my system, and I'm no good until I get a few hours' sleep. I don't know if this is a sign of age, or a sign of wisdom. --KrisJohnson

For the record, although I'm now working more than a strictly Extreme FortyHourWeek (maybe 45 ?) I haven't pulled a ThirtySixHourDay for the last two months (as of 12/00). I seem to be no less appreciated by my management, to whom (though I am not implying causality) I have been advocating XP by practicing as much of it as I can. -- LaurentBossavit

That's one of the ironies of working huge amounts of overtime: the worker is usually very proud of their sacrifice, but management really doesn't notice. As long as you are still at your desk when they leave for the day, managers don't know whether you are working 9-hour days or 16-hour days. The ThirtySixHourDay will be registered in management's minds as just two normal days, and suspect that the worker must be doing drugs due to the bleary-eyed look on day two.

One way to impress management is to send emails very late at night. Maybe set your alarm clock for 1 AM, go to sleep, when alarm goes off send a couple of emails.
Easier solution: Tell them that you have to go at 5 but have some stuff to finish up at home. Do a half hour or hour's research so that you'll have something interesting and relevant to talk about and impress people with the next day. Reply to or send an email sometime late at night. Total effort: 35-65 minutes; Perceived effort: many hours; Productivity lost: none (you'll actually gain by being well-rested and not adding OvertimeBugs?); Rest, family time, and sanity gained: priceless.

See also TwentyEightHourDay, BurnOut, ProgrammersBurnOut?, WhyDoYouPermitThisToBeDoneToYou

View edit of October 13, 2012 or FindPage with title or text search